Subrata Nandy was in school when he bagged the role of a juvenile delinquent in the Bengali play Gorur Garir Headlight (Bullock Cart’s Headlight). As the play, which has always been staged by the Kolkata-based theatre group Natasena, enters its 37th year of production, Nandy, now 56, plays one of the main characters. The role befits his age, both Nandy and the play having advanced in age concomitantly.
We are sitting around the driveway of a sprawling colonial mansion in south Kolkata where the group—comprising mostly part-time actors—is rehearsing for a new production, and statistics and anecdotes roll off faster than it takes to say “‘Kelenkarious Lacdivorious”—a phrase made memorable by one of the English-deficient, bumbling characters of Gorur Garir Headlight. Natasena first staged the farce in 1972, and it will be staging it for the 1,164th time on Wednesday.
Cast members say Headlight, as they refer to the play, draws capacity crowds even on days when there’s a general strike or strife. Over the last 15 years, it has earned revenues of Rs45 lakh even as other theatre productions in Kolkata have struggled to compete against television and dwindling audience interest. A dozen-odd actors, including the playwright-actor and Natasena founder Saroj Roy, have died in the course of the play’s long run. Roy was an evolved actor and the creative backbone of the group, and his absence is still felt in Natasena. The curtain, nevertheless, has fallen only to be rolled up for the next show.
(Left) The Natasena founder, playwright Saroj Roy and (right) Rana Sarkar and Udayan Chakraborty on stage in the 1980s. Photographs Courtesy Natasena
With the group expecting yet another “houseful moment”, Udayan Chakraborty, president of Natasena, sums up its appeal: “It’s just a nonsensical laugh riot, the absurdity of its plot reflected in the title itself. That’s it.”
Long-running plays are not uncommon on the Bengali stage. Theatre group Nandikar’s Teen Poisar Pala (1969), Football (1977) and Shesh Sakshatkar (1988), Sayak’s Daibaddha (1991) and Chetana’s Mareech Sambad and Jagannath (1977) have been staged for decades. Most, though, don’t have ticketed public stagings any longer—a result of dipping audience numbers or, as theatre veteran Rudraprasad Sengupta points out, the need to stage newer productions.
Well-known theatre critic and Jadavpur University professor Ananda Lal admits to being intrigued by Gorur Garir Headlight’s popularity, especially since he doesn’t find it particularly interesting. Scholarly compilations on theatre in Bengal too have completely ignored the play or its impact.
But senior Natasena member and actor Durga Chakraborty hints at a shift in theatre critics’ thinking. “Earlier, they didn’t consider Headlight as theatre, since it didn’t convey any political or social message, and is nothing more than a situational comedy,” he points out. “(But) these days, critics are seeing the value of a play that makes people laugh.”
The play revolves around a successful businessman’s desire to start a theatre group. Responding to his newspaper insert seeking actors, a wacky set of characters turn up—a stammering goofer, a partially-deaf retired military man, a philanderer, a village folk-theatre actor and two unemployed louts. The businessman’s sister-in-law, who had been researching on love, steps in as the actress, leading to the play’s romantic climax.
The cast rehearsing for the new performance. Indranil Bhowmick/Mint
It is not uncommon to find people who have watched the play dozens of times. Natasena members fondly recall the Ramakrishna Mission teacher who used to come for every staging with his son and was eventually issued passes by Roy. Another gent watched the play to cope with bereavement in the family. “It has an ageless appeal, not least because nobody minds having a good laugh,” says character-actor Ashok Das, who usually plays Jhulpi Joardar, the wayward youngster with a “five-year plan” to get a BA degree.
Natasena members admit that Headlight has “breathed much-needed financial oxygen” into the group, which has a repertoire of 47 Bengali plays, including the lauded Auga and Dhar Mundu Kissa. “Average turnout at shows since 1994, when the play was widely publicized, has been houseful,” Das points out.
Much like West End’s The Mousetrap and Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera , Headlight is among the longest-running in the world. Natasena knows that the Bengali stage will have Gorur Garir Headlight as long as the audience wants it for a lark.
Gorur Garir Headlight will be staged on 30 September at Girish Manch in Kolkata.
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